Try reaching Ossie Edwards at the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse once school has let out for the day, and you just might be out of luck. The library at the center, where Edwards spends half of her workweek, is typically abuzz with young people using resources such as tutoring programs and computer access after 2 p.m.This month Edwards, who lives in Syracuse with her husband and 16-year-old son, Vernon, a student at Jamesville-DeWitt High School, will be helping young people and their parents choose materials to help them learn more about African American contributions to our country’s history and culture. But Edwards, a native of Utica, Miss., says she hopes she can do more than just recommend a good biography. She wants young people to see the lessons behind the faces associated with Black History Month, to take those figures’ actions and build on them. Edwards wants young people to see that they are capable of great things.
Edwards, a graduate of the State University of New York at Binghamton and Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, has been a librarian at Beauchamp Library on Syracuse’s South Side for five years. She began spending half of her time at Southwest two years ago. She decided to channel her lifelong love of libraries into a job after she had worked for many years in the banking industry, and as a grant writer for Syracuse Model Neighborhood Corporation, which promotes neighborhood diversity through fair-housing practices.
Family Times caught up with Edwards at the Southwest Community Center one morning—before the after-school rush. She talked about the role of a modern community librarian, the lessons of Black History Month, and the lamentable fact that more people don’t know what libraries have to offer.
Q: How did you make the transition from the banking industry, and grant writing, to library work? Was it something you always wanted to do?
A: It seems like it would be a lot different, but I actually see a lot of similarities in my three careers. I would say that the thing that relates all three of my careers is serving people. With the bank, I was helping people to reach whatever financial goals they were seeking. With Syracuse Model Neighborhood there was a real commitment to addressing the housing problems in the city. At the library, the need is information. You’re helping people get the information they need to do anything from looking for a job to helping their children learn to read.
Q: You split your time between the Beauchamp Library and the library at the Southwest Community Center. What is unique about the needs of the community in that setting?
A: Well, at the center, I think one of the most important things we do is provide computer access to the community. Many families on the South Side do not have access to the Internet. But they can come here and look for jobs, or get other information.
We provide so many unique programs to the families here. Every Wednesday we have a phenomenal woman who comes in and teaches sewing, knitting and quilting to the pre-teens. Those are skills that are just becoming lost. Young people do not learn to sew anymore. The kids from the Parks and Recreation programs come up here (to the library) and we read to them, and then they get on the computers for about a half hour. Of course, from 2 to 5 p.m. we are very busy with students using the computers. And in the evenings we usually get a lot of people from the community coming in.
You know, the Southwest Community Center has always received sort of a negative connotation. You really only hear about this area of the city when something bad happens. But the center has a lot of great programs that don’t get a lot of attention. We have so many wonderful clients who use this library on a daily or weekly basis. Many people come to the center just to use this library. That is the amazing thing about the Onondaga County Public Library: We are in every community in this city.
Me? I’m glad I’m here in this community. I hope I’m making a difference. We really try to bring in programs that are particularly useful to this population.
Q: Do you feel the library system is able to keep up with the needs of the community you are serving?
A: It is challenging. It’s rewarding in that we provide services that these families would not be able to utilize any other way. But we depend solely on the public and that can make it difficult for us to keep up with the latest technology. You need money to be on the cutting edge and we simply don’t have enough. Kids come in all the time with the latest gadgets, pen drives and everything. They put their papers for school on them and want to work here. They can’t use those here. We do the best we can with the resources we have.
Then there is the frustration in knowing that there are still so many people who don’t know about all the resources they could be taking advantage of at the library. For example, we have data bases on everything and I don’t think many people are aware of it. For example, if you are preparing for the SAT, the ACT or the firefighter’s exam, you can sit down and take a practice test. All you need is a library card and a PIN number. If you need information, the library is still the place to go.
Q: With February being Black History Month, how do you see your role in terms of assisting parents and teachers wishing to educate children on the importance of and historical significance of Black History Month?
A: Well, I’m African American and I believe that the library reflects the community it serves. I also think it is important for all children to see themselves in what they read. We make a conscious effort to direct children to books and to plan events that convey the message that everyone is part of a global community and we need to respect each other. Everyone has a history that should be respected.
Most parents that come into the library are looking for ways to educate their children (on black history). We give them advice on how to take their understanding beyond what they are taught in school. In terms of understanding black history, it’s a concept that really doesn’t come into play until they are a little older. When kids start school, they are friends with everyone. Kids do not become conscious of color until they are in second or third grade.
Q: What do you think about how African American contributions to the country’s history are taught in the schools? What do you suggest for students who want to go beyond that?
A: There are wonderful teachers working tirelessly in the Syracuse school system. However, we (parents, teachers and the community at large) could do more. There are certain biographies that teachers recommend every year as part of Black History Month. We need to go beyond focusing on the person. We have to put more emphasis on action.
Last year, Beauchamp Branch Library welcomed the request of Dr. Horace G. Campbell (author and professor of African American studies and political science at Syracuse University) to conduct a series of lectures during Black History Month. At one particular lecture, he spoke about the meaning of black history. A light went on for me when he said, “Focus on the messages within those lives. That’s the key. Look at what these historical figures were trying to do. Look at how you, as young people, can carry that torch and take it to the next level.”
Take Dr. (Martin Luther) King as an example. Students read his biography, and that’s great; but they should try to look at the idea behind his message. What was he trying to do? How can we take his ideas and apply them to our lives. I think Black History Month is an opportunity for us to challenge our young people and ourselves. How can you take these ideas and enrich your community?
If I could talk to educators I’d say, “Let’s grab hold of those ideas.” Take the time to get students thinking about their responsibilities. How do you apply Dr. King’s ideas to your life? Dr. King tore down the wall of segregation. What walls should we or you tear down? Write a letter to City Hall. Invite your state senator to lunch at your school. An English class could visit a senior citizen home and interview five residents. The class could compile these histories into a book. Everyone has a history worth preserving.
As educators, it is our responsibility to give young people a base of knowledge. February isn’t just a time to remember individuals; it’s an opportunity to preserve their examples through action.
Q: So, what would you rec-ommend for teen-agers, beyond that standard list of Black History Month biographies?
A: Look deeper into what that person represents. Look at the big picture. Historically, what was happening? Rosa Parks is a good example. The story that most students read, and learn about, does not reflect the reality of that time. Refusing to move to the back of the bus was a courageous act. But why did she do it? Others went to jail for doing the same thing and those stories were not recorded. Parks’ refusal started the civil rights movement. Why? Rosa Parks was a respected member of the black community. She was a model citizen. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) took her case because of her reputation—a married, hard-working, Baptist woman. We must go beyond the person and look at the historical landscape. Rosa Parks gave her life to the civil rights movement. We should teach our children to give back to their communities. Use biographies to show them how to do it.
Q: What advice do you give parents for guiding the reading habits of new readers?
A: Kids read what they want to read. All you can do is offer them choices and hope that the lessons and examples they have learned will guide them. Teens tend to read lot of gloomy or dark stuff, I have found. It must have something to do with the age, but they eventually move out of it. That is why the library is such a great resource for young people. You can follow your interests, and you don’t have to spend money on buying the books!
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: Connecting people with the information they need for betterment. We’re here to increase your base of knowledge. There was one woman who came in, she had lost her job. She was unaware of the data bases we have. Just giving her access to tools that could change her situation ... it’s great to be able to do that.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge?
A: I would say it’s convincing the public that the public library should be the center of the community. We have people who come in every day for different things. If you have an information need, you should stop here.
Ossie Edwards’ Book Picks for Kids Pre-kindergarten
1. A Triangle for Adaora, Ifeoma Onyefulu
2. Kente Colors, Debbi Chocolate
3. A is for Africa, Ifeoma Onyefulu
1. The Fortune-Tellers, Lloyd Alexander
2. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales,
3. The Talking Eggs, Robert D. San Souci
1. Locomotion, Jacqueline Woodson
2. Monster, Walter Dean Myers
3. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison